Saturday, July 31, 2010

Playing To The Crowd

Last week, I drove from Brisbane to Queensland's Gold Coast to visit an art gallery.
The route took me past all the theme parks I went to in my early teens – my favourite was Wet 'n' Wild, even before I understood the sexual connotation – but it wasn't until I reached the faux-Miami high-rise apartment blocks and hotels strewn along the wide, bleached-white beaches that I realised just how much influence the place had exerted on my young imagination.
In summer, big-titted 'meter maids' in gold bikinis, stilettoed shoes and cowboy hats wandered the streets topping up parking meters while buff, blonde surfer boys and improbably tanned young girls in ass-clutching cut-off jeans flirted across the hoods of custom-painted panel vans. Everywhere was clean, glossy and shiney, as if air-brushed or enamelled. All the old people had age-indeterminate hair-pieces or dye-jobs and wore gleaming gold chains and store-bought skin tones.
19 Karen
was the address as well as the name of the gallery. It was at the end of a cul-de-sac off the main street of Surfer's Paradise, just two blocks from the beach, nestled between a mechanic's workshop, a surfboard shaper, a dance school and a biker gang's HQ. The concrete facade was non-descript and factory-like, the entrance defended by a wide, grey alumunium roller-door.
Inside, the gallery was large uncluttered and well lit, with high ceilings and exposed metal beams. An open, loft-style office overlooked the polished concrete floor of the exhibition space, which was divided by simple white partitions into areas that could accommodate two or three different shows at once.
19Karen's owner and director, Terri Lew, had designed the conversion of the former industrial space herself. As we walked through it, she described what she'd envisaged within the space in addition to thousands of square feet of hanging space: film and video projections, live performances, large-scale installations, even sculptures hung from the ceiling.
My most recent encounter with a commercial gallerist turned ugly early. But Terri didn't try to talk me into a representation deal: she had taken to time to read my blog and to get a handle on what sort of deal I expected. She was open to – and excited by – what I proposed.
We shook hands on the simple agreement that I would take over the entire gallery for a month from 15th October, 2011.
The exhibition at 19Karen will be the first time I've shown in Queensland for more than a decade – despite (or maybe because of) the fact that my first solo gallery show in a commercial gallery took place there. This time, it will will kick off a series of solo exhibitions, lectures and 'performances' I will present along the south-eastern seaboard of Australia, in the latter half of next year.
Almost a year ago, I wrote, in a blog entry titled Rock 'n' Rolla, "I think of galleries the same way a rock 'n' roll band thinks of venues: there are good and bad ones, there are ones that have a bit of history or a better weekday crowd, but you pretty much play them all when you're on the road. And as long as the crowd gets into what you're playing, a cramped, smokey chicken-wire bar at a truck-stop in the middle of nowhere can be as much fun as a slick 'big room' or a swanky theatre in the heart of a city."
I went on: "Of course, late 20th and 21st century artists have long been encouraged (by gallerists, mostly) to think of exhibitions as being more occasional, elitist and, well, reverent than a music gig. It's a residue of a 19th century Romantic notion about so-called fine art that I just can't stomach."
Since then, I've been exploring new ways to take my work 'on the road' in a variety of media and to exhibit it in galleries and other, less formal spaces in different parts of the country. I've begun thinking of it as my own kind of rock 'n' roll tour. Originally, I'd intended to do this first in the USA, working with actual rock 'n' roll producers and impresarios. It might yet happen but my breakdown, followed by my father hospitalisation with cancer, have forced me to rethink my plan.
Thankfully, a new breed of gallerists in Australia has encouraged me to try to pull it off closer to home – and to be even more ambitious about it.
Pictured above, in bottom right of frame, 19Karen Gallery

Friday, July 30, 2010

Emptying Out The Past

Following yesterday's post, I've had several enquiries about the works available for sale from studio.
Most of the watercolors, drawings and photographs have been sold. Some small watercolour illustrations for this blog are still available, as are a dozen or so acrylic studies on heavyweight, cold-pressed paper. Each of the studies has an average image size of 40cms x 60cms – only the Big Pin-Ups vary, with a maximum length/width of 47cms – on a generous expanse of paper and is signed and dated on the front.
The remaining studies are:
Big Pin-Ups
: Miss January, Miss March, Miss April and Miss July.
Precious Blood
: No.1 and No.2.
Sports Career Babes
: The Climber, The Cricketer and The Judge.
Dangerous Career Babes:
The Stylist, The Demolitionist and The Wrestler.
All the above are priced at $A2,500 each, including delivery. Payment is accepted via bank transfer or Paypal.
Finally, studies of two of my earliest enamel works are being offered for sale by a local collector through the studio: The Red Shoes from my 1999 series, Accoutrements Of Desire, and my first enamel painting in the style for which I became known, The Moment Before Having, from 1996. These are priced at $A3,500 each, including delivery.
For further information – or to place an order – please contact my studio by email.
Pictured above: Study for
Dangerous Career Babes: The Gambler, destined for a Western Australian collector.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Don't Look Back

"Hers is the most revealing behind and in front of the scene look you will ever get at the struggles of making it as an artist. This is not made for television, it is real. Unless you cannot resist the guilty pleasure, there is no need to tune into to the reality TV show, Work Of Art..."
I felt guilty when I read
Barney Davey's effusive praise for this blog in his widely read and instructive Art Print Issues. It has been nearly a week since I last posted an entry here and I have been averaging no more than one or two a week for the past month. It's not for lack of things to write about: I spent the first three months of 2010 in a psychiatric clinic and the next three trying to put my life back together with what little was left after my illness forced me into bankruptcy. Rather, I've needed time alone to think – think and not have to share – and through diet and rigorous exercise, try to dissipate the fog of psychotropic medications that had suppressed my imagination for too long.
I also needed to practice my painting skills. They were rustier than I'd expected after months of disuse. Simple brush-work, especially with enamel paints, demanded more control and mental focus than I could muster, at least for the first few weeks, so I resorted to repainting several studies of recent enamel paintings in more forgiving acrylic in order to resuscitate some stored muscle-memory. And if my mind and body were shakey, my confidence was in a worse state. I felt like a fake: unable to complete new work – commissions had accumulated like past due accounts prior to my breakdown – I questioned my competence even to replicate old work. Reams of defaced attempts littered the floor of my studio.
At the end of last year, I burned a pile of my paintings in a frenzied, psychotic impulse to free myself from my past. I've wondered more than once, these past several weeks, whether or not it might actually have been a singular epsiode of clarity, of sanity.
I have no doubt that I am an artist. In many ways, I am no choice about it. However, I do have increasing doubts about the art I'm making and why. It is, in some ways (not all), at odds with what preoccupies me these days. Which is not to say I don't believe in my current work. It's just that, right now, it obstructs my path, in ways emotional, psychological and physical, to what I want – no, what I am compelled – to explore next.
So I'm ridding myself of distracting remnants of old ideas. I'm selling all my studies, drawings and photographs – at prices far below those charged in the secondary market – in order to fund the completion of my last two series of 'old' enamel works, the
Dangerous Career Babes and Big Pin-Ups (Miss July is pictured here) before the year's end. After they're done, I won't accept any more commissions. I long to be free of obligation – and, for that matter, others' expectations – so that I can begin to refine, then serve, the stew of new ideas already simmering in my head.
If ever there was an opportunity for smart collectors to acquire one of my works at an affordable price, this period of radical transition would be it.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Say My Name, Say My Name

If, as Samuel Beckett said, words are all we have, then artists represented within the gallery system have very little.
Today, I received an email from a well-known and respected curator. He was promoting a giveaway of an artists' print. To communicate the artwork's value, the curator described the artist as museum-level. It reminded me of a high school or university grading, where students' levels of achievement are noted not as numbers but as credit, distinction or high distinction, except the curator's terminology was colder. Referring to an artist merely as museum-level conveys they are valued within the traditional system but not enough to receive more fulsome enthusiasm.
I got to thinking about the terminology used elsewhere in the art world. The words used by art dealers to describe artists are a mixture of financial jargon, touchy-feely euphemisms and derogatory metaphors. The same words are adopted by artists to describe themselves – maybe because they are too often desperate to ingratiate themselves with art dealers.
Like a horse-breeder, a commercial gallery has a
stable of artists – and any artist that joins the gallery becomes part of that stable. It's a common expression, used without embarrassment on many commercial gallery websites. Unlike race horses and domestic animals bred for show, artists aren't labeled according to age but rather potential value. They're described as emerging, mid-career or leading. The very best are not always called masters but thoroughbreds.
Of course, the dealer's perspective is no different to a stud farmer's or trainer's. The work of an emerging artist is sold at an entry level price. However, unlike race-horses, who earn their categorisations by age and early on, only ever race against their age-peers, the age or price point at which an artist ceases to be emerging is relative to the then-current market and can be entirely arbitrary. The term is often dismissive:
emerging can be art-speak for newbie or worse, rube.
An artist graduates to being mid-career when their work is regularly sold on the secondary market through art dealers and auction houses. It's a kind of no-man's land, expected to be achieved only after working hard for a couple of decades. Most professions offer some kind of recognition for such dedication. Not the art world.
A
leading artist is, as the name suggests, a front-runner, a pace-maker, a winner. Leading artists' works sell for large amounts and their names carry and enhance the status of everyone – dealer, collector, curator, institution – associated with it. Their artworks are described as blue-chip, the same as stock that sells at a high price because of public confidence in the issuing corporation's long record of steady earnings. Buying (and selling) the work of a leading artist is also akin to backing a winner in a horse race.
Incidentally, those collectors who buy art as an investment are called
punters, the same as bettors at a race track. Those who buy poorly are mug punters.
Euphemisms abound in the traditional gallery system: patronising, pseudo-parental terms like
nurturing, supporting, and developing. They imply care - worse, they imply that artists are unable to care for themselves. Galleries always proclaim that they nurture the artists in their stable. But giving an artist an exhibition – and often charging emerging artists a higher commission rate – doesn't equate to helping to develop artistic talent or further a career. Art dealers nurture prices, not artists.
When an art dealer or gallery
supports an artists' work, it means they bid for it anonymously at auction to ensure that the price point at which the gallery retails the work remains stable or increases. Auction records are available to the public. However, the details of the buyers are not. In an attempt to stop price-ramping, art galleries selling their artists' work at auction must declare their interest. But buyers always remain anonymous. Sometimes the buyers are collaborative dealers – or rich spouses.
Early on in my career I was advised by an art dealer to find a wealthy man to marry, one who could
support my work, both its production and its price at auction.
The term
support is also used when an art dealer has exhibited and sold an artists' work. It implies a favour, a good deed, rather than a business arrangement. I have even heard it used as a kind of emotional blackmail: a dealer telling an artist, "I supported you for years!" Which is to say that he displayed and sold the artist's work, took a commission and charged ancillary expenses from the proceeds – and still couldn't return their phone calls.
Words don't just define meaning. They create it as well. The words used within the traditional art system are inherently demeaning to artists. Yet artists – who, by definition, delve into meaning and symbolism every day of their working lives – use the same words to describe themselves and each other. If we are ever going to become more independent and better off, we need to find a different terminology with which to think and talk about what we do.
It's the very first step we need to take if we're to challenge and change a system designed to oppress and profit from us.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The I In Art

I have been questioning the role of art in my life: not making art or being an artist – I'm entirely committed to both – but what other people's art means to me. I'm troubled that, for a while now, it hasn't meant that much.
I used to be deeply touched by my experience of art. I've been moved to tears in front of certain works, because of everything from the subject matter to the way the paint had been applied. I've traced sculptures with my fingers, not so much studying as absorbing their forms. I used to travel 18 hour by bus or train to see exhibitions in other states. I didn't know much about the artists who made the works – my education in art history didn't really begin until a few years ago – but I didn't really care. The experience of art was enough.
It isn't anymore.
During the worst of my recent times I wanted to lose myself in other people's works. I scanned websites for descriptions of upcoming exhibitions but lost interest before I could drag myself out the door. And when I tried to recall art that had affected me but I could only think of two; a large abstract by Anselm Kiefer and a disturbing study by Francis Bacon of Velsaquez's Pope Innocent X.
It bothered me that the thing around which I'd built my life meant so little to me.
Even when it came to my own work, I sensed the intensity of my commitment had faded. I asked myself why art as a whole had less meaning to me? Had I become jaded – or simply more discerning? Athough I can more clearly identify the influence of one artist over another and the occasionally rote-like repetition of ideas, art doesn't have to be great or even original to be effective.
I began to doubt the value of any art, despite seeing other people's response to my own. I began to doubt myself.
The world has changed a lot in the last fifteen years, most noticeably in the last five. The internet has connected everybody to each other and to vast amounts of information about everything. For a while, I thought that art wasn't keeping up, that the changes in the way we respond to visual material had made art as we used to know it obsolete.
The 'net has certainly changed our expectations of art: reproduction of images is not just accepted but expected. We – I – want to be able to view an artwork when I want, where I want, which is to say I want art to be something I can experience within the context I define for it rather than the context someone or something else (such as a gallery) defines. But the medium is not just the 'message': what the medium has done is shift the message – from the art to the artist.
And suddenly I can't look at an individual artwork the same way again.
I've written before about the inexorable shift in value from the individual artwork to the artist. I've understood – and embraced – this on an intellectual level but the more I've thought about it – and the more I've looked for art that has real meaning for me – the more I've realised that meaning, like value, has also shifted to the artist.
My experience of art is no longer satisfied just by being able to see artworks. I want to know more about the artist and understand at a deeper level the development not just of their ideas but of their self. I want to be able to watch in real time how they evolve within a rapidly changing world and how they interact with it – even better, how they interact with me. An individual artwork will always be related to the time and context in which it was made, and I am still interested in that too, but as a part of the artist as a whole.
In other words, in a time when everything is commoditized, I want to know the artists are more (or less) than what they make and why. Maybe a truly contemporary artist is one who 'gets' this and engages openly and directly with our radically revised expectations of them.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Uncertain Future

"When you look into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you."
– Friedrich Nietzsche
Lately I've been finding elements of my life really fucking confronting.
Everything is in flux. Nothing is certain. Life is often like this but after all I've been through in the past year – the slow unravelling of my mind, the several weeks I spent in hospital, my inescapable bankruptcy the diagnosis of my father's cancer – I've been left with meagre emotional resources to be able to withstand much more.
Then again, there's nothing quite like watching the one person I thought might live forever confront their imminent mortality to shatter child-like notions of immutability. stability. I realise now how time is so easily lost or, worse, wasted.
I've spent the last year in some kind of fatalistic stupor. Fearful of a future in which my natural independence and solitude might isolate me, I tried in vain to jury-rig a safe, socialised structure to protect myself instead of just embracing the occupational risks – creative, emotional, financial – of making art for a living. It leached me of energy and daring. And when it failed, I fell into the role of a powerless, frightened victim.
I've spent the past several weeks caring for my father in a city that is one of art's stagnant backwaters. I stopped painting for a while. I even thought of stopping for good. All the determination I once had dissolved into self-pity.
It took a random image in my head of my half-paralysed, tumour-ridden father facing down death with grace and good humour to bring me to my senses.
Instead of stopping painting, I stopped hiding out. Yesterday, I finalised dates for the first of several solo exhibitions next year, both within Australia and elsewhere. The first will be at MARS Gallery in Port Melbourne, Victoria, from 10th to 20th November, featuring the first new enamels I have shown in public since 2004. The second, opening on 12th November at Latrobe Contemporary Gallery in Morwell, Victoria, will coincide with a number of local events and workshops focussing on my experiments with other media.
I'm working both forward and backwards from those dates to organise other exhibitions to bridge the second half of 2011 and the first half of 2012. I'm re-thinking my schedule to enable me to complete all my outstanding commissions by the end of 2010. Logistics are always a mind-fuck, especially when they involve shipping several dozen works to different locations, but I am already getting my head around the hassle – and the gob-smacking cost.
I'm determined to make a more space for the future by paring down what I've kept of the past. I've decided to rid myself of piles of sketches, studies, and works on paper done since I was discharged from hospital. In part, it will help to finance the space and material I need to make new work, It'll also unleash me from old ideas, old methodologies: even reference materials for past works have been catalogued and packed away in archive boxes at a storage facility in Sydney.
I've decided to live in much the same way as I work. When I make art, I start with an idea of what I would like to do. I know it won't turn out exactly as I imagined but if I worried too much about that at the outset, the idea wouldn't be realised at all. It isn't always sucessful. It doesn't always work. But sometimes it turns into something much more than I first imagined. The key is to keep moving – even if it isn't always forward – to avoid stasis.
Longing for certainty is common to all of us. I have never longed for it so hard or so often as I have during the past year or so – until it struck me that the absence of this longing is exactly what sets the artist apart from everyone else. It might be comforting but it offers no provocation, no challenge.
The truly creative not only adapt and evolve in response to uncertainty, they relish it. They might be disciplined in their work habits but inspiration is often unruly and unreliable. Attempts to control it, to corral it, make dull art. An ability to collaborate with uncertainty has always been the mark of a great artist.
As my father is teaching me, the only real certainty is death. Like him, I intend to spend every day of the rest of my life facing it down.

Monday, July 12, 2010

I, By Another

The strange thing about being in Brisbane is that I have no sense of my self beyond the rather isolating, constrained, temporary life I have here. I live at my family's house in a nondescript suburb. I walk to the gym at the end of the street. I drive to the hospital to visit my father. In between, I paint.
The city is as oppressively dull as it was ten years ago. The people I knew then have changed so little it's like stepping onto the set of The Truman Show. I keep expecting to spot cameras linking to an outside broadcast facility.
It comes as something of a surprise to stumble across evidence I still exist – as a person, as an artist – outside this place.
Yesterday, a friend emailed to tell me that I'm the inspiration for a t-shirt offered for sale by Zian Silverwolf, a fantasy artist whose work is "a combination of the love of mythology, the ancient and the futuristic, the blend of east and west, the natural and the supernatural, the otherworldly and a fascination with cartoons."
As she writes (with great generosity) on her e-commerce site, the t-shirt is intended as "a design tribute... Her standard Art is War was the defining concept for this work, the bangles representing her well-known Yes/No series. Colour, the exacting line and the female form are all attributes of her work, translated here into the zeddess goddess – paintbrushes for fingernails, the eyes of the soul and the heart of the warrior. Not to mention capturing something of Hazel’s own strength and beauty.
She adds, "The work was inspired by Hazel’s own story of determination, courage and creative battle in the world of fine arts."
Aww, shucks.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Working Outpost

Each morning, I walk a block from my father's house to a local gym. It has been run by the same family for more years than I've been alive. The walls are lined with posters of local and national bodybuilding competitions in which the owners have competed, along with, more curiously, framed, embroidered portraits of bodybuilding icons. I recognise Arnold Schwarzenegger and Lou Ferrigno, the original Incredible Hulk.
Every time I walk past Arnold, I recall the moment in the 70s' documentary Pumping Iron when he explains how weightlifting made him feel like he was cumming day and night. It doesn't make me feel that way but it keeps me sane. When I work out I focus on technique, inspired (just a little) by Henry Rollins and his iron-based discipline and DIY work ethic. I watch music clips or race an imaginary opponent in a crudely rendered video-game viewed on a low res' console attached to a reclining stationary cycle. I keep a notebook next to me so I can scribble down ideas.
After an hour or two I walk home to start painting. Works in progress are taped to the wall of my bedroom. An open, hard-shelled suitcase holds tubes of paint in neat rows. My printer, scanner and computer sit on the floor and I use a spare bed as a table. The internet is always on, connected via a mobile USB modem. I organise shows for next year while I work, conversing via a combined bluetooth microphone/earpiece connected to an iPhone in my pocket. Sometimes I feel like Molly Millions, the optically enhanced 'street samurai' in William Gibson's Neuromancer.
If only Brisbane was as interesting as The Sprawl.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Don't Ask Me

People don't always 'read' an artwork the way the artist intended. Each viewing is filtered through a lens of personal knowledge, experience and prejudice that might not refer to anything to do with art, let alone the artist. Individual responses can be complicated and often contrary to what an artist might expect.
It's the same with writing. As an occasional essayist and diarist, I try to choose my words as carefully and as expressively as possible. But they're still prone to misinterpretation.
It doesn't bother me a bit.
Whatever I create, I want it to be able to stand on its own. When I first conceive a series of paintings, I write a few words to describe what I'm setting out to do and why but this is as much for my own understanding as for others. I'm not offering myself up for a discussion or interrogation. Similarly, my writing is not an invitation to converse with me.
I'm OK with whatever response my work provokes. If some don't 'get' it the way I intended, I don't care. I can't mediate, let alone negotiate, everyone's reactions. Even my own are mutable. By the time I've finished a series of works or posted words online, I've moved on and my mind is elsewhere – sometimes, it has changed completely.
The way I see it, my job is to decide what I want to put out there. The rest is up to...well, you.